Three historic Delaware schools gain national attention for their role in landmark court case
President Biden recently signed the Brown v. Board of Education National Historical Park Expansion and Redesignation Act into law, and that should make Delaware’s role in the landmark 1954 Brown v Board U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing school segregation more visible.
The Topeka, Kansas school connected to the Brown decision became part of the National Park System in 1992.
This law redesignates that historic site as the Brown v. Board of Education National Historical Park. It also formally recognizes other sites related to the case, including Claymont High School, Howard High School, and Hockessin School #107C in Delaware.
Hockessin School #107C alum James “Sonny” Knot says is glad his old school is getting this renewed attention for its role in the historic case.
“They don’t have to hear it, they can see it, and that’s more important than anything in the world. I can tell you anything, but until you see it... And you can bring your kids,” explained Knot. “So we’ll go on down to way back when things were segregated. Now it’s open to the public. That’s why it’s so exciting to people like me.”
Each First State school recognized was part of the Belton v. Gebhart case in Delaware that was later combined with 4 other cases to become Brown vs. Board of Education.
Belton v. Gebhart is a combination of two Delaware cases. The first case was brought in by the parents of eight Black students living in Claymont, DE. Claymont High School was a segregated, all-white school. Despite the students living in closer proximity to that school, they were forced to travel to downtown Wilmington every day to attend Howard High School, which was the first high school for Black Delawareans in the First State.
In 1950 Bulah v. Gebhart, the second case which was eventually absorbed by Belton v Gebhart, was brought in by Sarah Bulah. Her daughter, Shirley, attended Hockessin School #107C, the only school in the area that permitted Black students. Bulah was only 6 years old, and had to walk 2 miles to and from school every day. Her mother wrote to Governor Carvel asking for the state to provide transportation for her, and was rejected, despite the fact that a bus carrying white students passed her every day.
The cases were filed in 1951. Jack Greenberg from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and Louis L. Redding, Delaware’s first Black attorney, worked on the case together. Chancellor Collins J. Seitz ruled that the conditions of the Black and white schools were unequal, which effectively violated the “separate but equal” doctrine that allowed for legal segregation at the time, and called for the integration of Delaware schools. The trial court's decision was confirmed by the Supreme Court of Delaware. Of the five cases involved in Brown v Board of Education, Gebhart v Bulah was the only one that had ordered for the integration of schools on a state level.
Today Howard High School is called Howard High School of Technology, and is in the New Castle County Vocational-Technical School District.
The former Claymont High School is currently a community center.
And Hockessin School #107C now a center for diversity, inclusion, and social equity.
Ivan Henderson is the Director of the Jane and Littleton Mitchell Center for African American Heritage. He says many people are unaware of Delaware’s role in the case and says this move and more access to educational resources can change that.
“In a state that’s got a new bill around the teaching of African American history, it’s important to have these sorts of resources and sources to point to, to visit, and to make the history real, and, as far as possible, tangible,” said Henderson, referring to House Bill 198.
Henderson says as Delaware moves forward with HB 198, more resources and opportunities will become available for educators.
For now, for those who would like to know more about Delaware’s role in Brown v Board of Education, the Mitchell Center for African American Heritage has information available, including the exploration of the legacy of Louis L. Redding, descriptions of “a day in the life” of Howard High School students during the time of segregation, and more. Tours are available by appointment, and more information can be found at www.dehistory.org.